It is increasingly common to speak about grace as a subject. “Grace” is said to do amazing things in your life. It can forgive. It can make you obey. In short, “grace” is what you need to be a Christian. We need grace. Amen. But isn’t the Triune God the one who does these things, working together to decree, accomplish, and apply his salvation? Yet grace is today’s new subject, and I mean that in the sense that grace is the subject of sentences about salvation. It’s a popular shorthand that has become an essential feature of so many recent books. Indeed, David Robertson of St. Peters Free Church in Dundee, Scotland has suggested we call this burgeoning genre “Grace-Lit.”
The proliferance of this shorthand has led me to ask whether the new language is a reflection of biblical usage. According to a morphological search in my Bible software, there are 58 occurrences of χάρις in the nominative form throughout the New Testament. “Grace” is either the active or passive subject of 58 sentence units in the New Testament. A vast majority of these occurrences are Pauline, though four are Johannine, three Petrine, three Lukan, and one comes from the book of Hebrews. While the nominative form of χάρις appears across a range of biblical authors, the types of usages are few. I have organized these usages according to the verb or action connected with grace. You’ll see that while χάρις occurs in the nominative, the typical usage is far from what we find in “Grace-Lit.”
A Survey of Uses
Came / Comes Upon
Luke 2:40 And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor [χάρις] of God was upon him.
Acts 4:33 And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.
John 1:17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
Abounds / Extends / Overflows / Be Multiplied
Rom. 5:15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.
Rom. 5:20 Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Rom. 6:1 What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?
2Cor. 4:15 For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
1Tim. 1:14 and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
1Pet. 1:2 according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you.
2Pet. 1:2 May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.
2Cor. 12:9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
Eph. 3:8 To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ,
Eph. 4:7 But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.
Is (whether implicit or explicit)
χάρις is found several times without a verb. These are often apostolic salutations where an implied “to be” verb is understood. Other times it is accompanied by an explicit “to be” verb in the Greek. English translators often add these verbs to make them more readable.
Luke 6:32–34 “If you love those who love you, what benefit [χάρις] is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit [χάρις] is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit [χάρις] is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount.
Rom. 1:7 To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Rom. 6:17 But thanks [χάρις] be [implied] to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed,
Rom. 7:25 Thanks [χάρις] be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
Rom. 11:6 But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.
Rom. 16:20 The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
1Cor. 1:3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
1Cor. 15:57 But thanks [χάρις] be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
1Cor. 16:23 The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you.
2Cor. 1:2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
2Cor. 2:14 But thanks [χάρις] be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere.
2Cor. 8:16 But thanks [χάρις] be to God, who put into the heart of Titus the same earnest care I have for you.
2Cor. 9:15 Thanks [χάρις] be to God for his inexpressible gift!
2Cor. 13:14 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
Gal. 1:3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,
Gal. 6:18 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers. Amen.
Eph. 1:2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Eph. 6:24 Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love incorruptible.
Phil. 1:2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Phil. 4:23 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
Col. 1:2 To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father.
Col. 4:18 I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Remember my chains. Grace be with you.
1Th. 1:1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.
1Th. 5:28 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
2Th. 1:2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
2Th. 3:18 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.
1Tim. 1:2 To Timothy, my true child in the faith: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.
1Tim. 6:21 for by professing it some have swerved from the faith. Grace be with you.
2Tim. 1:2 To Timothy, my beloved child: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.
2Tim. 4:22 The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you.
Titus 1:4 To Titus, my true child in a common faith: Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior.
Titus 3:15 All who are with me send greetings to you. Greet those who love us in the faith. Grace be with you all.
Philem. 3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Philem. 25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
1Pet. 2:19–20 For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.
Heb. 13:25 Grace be with all of you.
2John 3 Grace, mercy, and peace will be with us, from God the Father and from Jesus Christ the Father’s Son, in truth and love.
Rev. 1:4 John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne,
Rev. 22:21 The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen.
What Kind of Subject is Grace?
It should be apparent that these occurrences of χάρις in the nominative do not indicate that grace is a genuine subject. That is, grace is not depicted as an agent that directly forgives or transforms. Grace is a subject in a manner similar to how “a pot becomes hot on the burner.” The pot is a subject in terms of our manner of speaking, but not a proper subject of action. It has no agency. When grace “comes” or “abounds,” it’s not that grace enacted that state of affairs itself. When a gift arrives in the mail, we don’t assume the gift got up of its own accord and came to your house. This is all elementary, I realize. But the current grace shorthand tends to blur this common sense and make grace something more than it is. If we are going to speak about “grace,” we should do so in a manner that reflects the biblical usage. Is grace the agent of change in your life, or is grace something you receive? Is grace a proper subject, or is it the context and means by which you experience God’s power?
Before we seek to answer those questions more fully, we must examine two Pauline uses of χάρις in the nominative. First Corinthians 15:10 and Titus 2:11 stand out from the other 56 occurrences. Upon an intitial examination, they seem to attribute a greater role for grace as a subject—something more akin to the current grace shorthand. Let’s examine these verses more closely to see if they warrant the currently fashionable mode of grace talk.
1 Corinthians 15:10
1Cor. 15:10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.
χάριτι δὲ θεοῦ εἰμι ὅ εἰμι, καὶ ἡ χάρις αὐτοῦ ἡ εἰς ἐμὲ οὐ κενὴ ἐγενήθη, ἀλλὰ περισσότερον αὐτῶν πάντων ἐκοπίασα, οὐκ ἐγὼ δὲ ἀλλὰ ἡ χάρις τοῦ θεοῦ [ἡ] σὺν ἐμοί.
In this passage, Paul is responding to the phenomenon of people purporting to be prophets of this gospel. There were those who supposedly received revelations from God and others who spoke in tongues. While these individuals seem to be privileged Christians who have a spiritual leg up on everyone else, Paul indicates that he worked harder than any of them. But rather than making this a matter of personal pride, Paul quickly states that it was not he that worked, but the grace of God that worked in him. Grace worked. This is perhaps the closest thing we’ll find in Scripture to the presently fashionable grace-speak.
How are we to understand grace as something that works? First, we should understand this verse in context. Verse 10 follows what is perhaps the quintessential summarization of the gospel. In glorious simplicity, 1 Corinthians 1–8 demonstrates the gospel of Jesus Christ, the one who died, bringing salvation to all who believe. Christ is the preeminent subject of the immediately preceding context. Second, the context that immediately follows and continues to the end of the chapter is the preeminent biblical passage regarding the resurrection of believers. Yet while the gospel statement of vv. 1–8 focuses on Christ, this expands into a Trinitarian purview. God has raised Christ, who has become life-giving Spirit, one who imparts eschatological life to the people of God. It is clear that the featured subject of 1 Cor 15:1–8 as well as 1 Cor 15:12–58 is the Triune God and specifically the resurrected Christ.
Why then should we expect Christ to take a breather for 1 Cor 15:10, to let χάρις do the work? Is Paul suggesting that grace is the proper agent of change in his life, or is he speaking more or less in a manner similar to what he says in Phil 2:12–13?
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
It is God who works in you—a gracious God indeed, but God nevertheless. It was Paul who worked harder than the others, but really it was the grace of God. Paul commands us to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling for it is God who works. The genitival “of God” in 1 Cor 15:10 should clarify that Paul does not consider grace as the proper subject. God works by his Spirit to bring about change in the lives of his people. Functionally speaking, the Spirit is identified with grace in 1 Cor 15:10 in order to describe further the character of this person and his salvific work.
Titus 2:11–14 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.
Ἐπεφάνη γὰρ ἡ χάρις τοῦ θεοῦ σωτήριος πᾶσιν ἀνθρώποις παιδεύουσα ἡμᾶς, ἵνα ἀρνησάμενοι τὴν ἀσέβειαν καὶ τὰς κοσμικὰς ἐπιθυμίας σωφρόνως καὶ δικαίως καὶ εὐσεβῶς ζήσωμεν ἐν τῷ νῦν αἰῶνι, προσδεχόμενοι τὴν μακαρίαν ἐλπίδα καὶ ἐπιφάνειαν τῆς δόξης τοῦ μεγάλου θεοῦ καὶ σωτῆρος ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, ὃς ἔδωκεν ἑαυτὸν ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν, ἵνα λυτρώσηται ἡμᾶς ἀπὸ πάσης ἀνομίας καὶ καθαρίσῃ ἑαυτῷ λαὸν περιούσιον, ζηλωτὴν καλῶν ἔργων.
In this passage, Paul says that the grace of God has appeared. The mere fact that grace “has appeared” does not require us to believe that grace is some sort of agent. Again, if a gift appears on your doorstep, you attribute the appearance of that gift to the delivery person and, ultimately, to the sender. But Paul goes further, saying that the grace brings salvation to all men.
Those with training in Greek will notice that “bringing” is not a separate verb, but is understood by the translators of the English Standard Version as part of the single word σωτήριος, a feminine singular nominative adjective that modifies χάρις. The grace that has appeared is σωτήριος, that is, it is the type of grace that brings or imparts salvation.
This grace also trains us 1) to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions and 2) to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age. How can grace “train” us? Does it have the power to instruct, motivate, and guide? To clarify what Paul means by saying that grace appears, brings salvation, and trains, we must continue reading through verses 13 and 14.
Paul is not identifying grace as the proper soteriological agent. Grace has appeared because Christ has been revealed. And by his Spirit, he works salvation in our lives. Indeed, verse 13 identifies Christ as the blessed hope, and verse 14 makes clear that Christ is the agent of redemption. Christ himself is the grace of verse 11 and the blessed hope of verse 14. These blessings of the gospel are functionally identified with the proper agent of redemption, Christ, just as grace is functionally identified with the agent of application/transformation, the Spirit, in 1 Cor 15:10 (cf. Phil 2:12–13).
What Then Is Grace?
It’s common to define grace as unmerited (or better, demerited) favor. This is a good definition. Grace is God’s favor toward those who do not deserve it. Not only does God offer good gifts to the undeserving, but those good gifts are also precisely the opposite of what the recipients actually deserve. They should receive eternal punishment; instead, God’s people receive Christ and all that he is for them in the gospel.
This is the key point in this discussion of “Grace-Lit.” It seems nearly impossible, but one can become so enamored with grace that one’s language of salvation becomes virtually devoid of the gracious subject. Practically speaking, one can focus on God’s gift to the exclusion of the giver. I believe this stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of grace. Grace is not a substance. Neither is it an agent. Grace is God’s disposition toward his people in Christ. Being favorably disposed, he enacts change through the Holy Spirit. In other words, the subject of forgiveness and transformation is always God himself, not properly “grace.” To use a prosaic illustration, grace is not one of God’s employees who accomplishes tasks on his behalf. Grace is one aspect of God’s character. God does the work himself.
One of the most beloved lines in our hymody is, “Amazing grace!—how sweet the sound—that saved a wretch like me!” Take a moment to parse this with me. Properly speaking, who saved you? It was not some ethereal substance. It was not an impersonal force. It was the Triune God himself: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He is the gracious subject. He is the person who demonstrates grace by working to bless rather than to curse.
Is it wrong then, to use grace as a subject? Not necessarily. It can be a useful shorthand at times, provided we never obscure the agent of our salvation. This is how Paul speaks in 1 Cor 15:10 and Titus 2:11–14. He speaks highly of grace, but never as an end in itself. Grace is a means by which the Triune God brings us into fully realized union and communion with him. The goal of our salvation is always God himself.
Scripture quotations have been from the English Standard Version.